As part of the countdown to celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in October, Lion & Phoenix will run a weekly series called “Protestant Profiles” – featuring notable Protestant Christians from across the 5 centuries. This post is the second of two “prelude” posts, introducing significant figures who contended for the faith in significant ways in the centuries of Church History before the Reformation of 1517.
In our last post, we looked at three notable contenders for Christian orthodoxy in the early centuries of the Church. Each of them defended the truth as bishops of the Church, against heresies that threatened to corrupt the faith. Though each of the false teachings they faced off against gained significant ground and threatened to do enormous damage, Irenaeus, Athanasius and Augustine successfully upheld biblical doctrine and saw the defeat of the gospel-tainting Gnosticism, Arianism and Pelagianism.
Fast forward several centuries and the biggest problems the Church faced did not come from a pseudo-Christian sect like the Gnostics, or an aberrant priest or monk like Arius or Pelagius. Over the years, error and falsehood became entrenched in the Church and the corruption was proliferated by the Church’s hierarchy from the top down.
Popes and bishops formulated novel doctrines that had no solid basis in Scripture; placed conditions on salvation that were not taught by Jesus and the apostles and became entangled in scandalous lifestyles of extravagance, political machinations and immorality. Many in Christendom would have held objections towards these kind of abuses of clerical power. But since the clergy dominated society and comprised the majority of the educated class who could read the Scriptures, most ordinary people would have lacked the capacity to openly question the church leadership or agitate for reform.
But three notable figures did take an open stand against the Church’s unbiblical doctrines and horrendous moral transgressions. They began as dissidents within the Church, but were forced out or killed by ecclesiastical powers who were unwilling to change. Their protests may have seemed like ripples and breeze in a Church that was being tossed about by waves and carried by every wind of doctrine (Eph 4:14), but they were the sign of the reform that was coming in the 16th century.
Born: Lyons, France
Role: Merchant-turned-mendicant preacher, founder of Waldensian movement
Emphases: Poverty and simplicity over worldly riches; lay preaching missions; translation of Bible into vernacular language (in this case French)
Opposed: Rome; purgatory; transubstantiation
Peter Waldo was a wealthy French merchant who was moved by the radical example of an early Christian ‘saint’ to consider a life simplicity and poverty in following Christ. This solidified into a conviction when he considered the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler in the Gospels and the implications he regarded this episode as having for ordinary Christians.
After ensuring that his wife had sufficient financial resources, Waldo gave away much of his considerable wealth and began to live and preach among the poor. He gained a following and sent missionaries out to the vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society – to share in their life and teach them the Bible.
Waldo practised his convictions without authorisation from the local bishop and emphasised themes that seemed to run counter to Catholic teaching and practice, while also challenging the biblicality of certain, long held Church doctrines (see above). Naturally this brought him into conflict with the Church hierarchy and he was forced to give a defence of his views in Rome.
At the Third Lateran Council of 1179, Waldo’s views did not receive a favourable assessment from the assembled Church hierarchy. Waldo went into effective exile and his movement established a kind of wilderness base in the mountainous regions of Southern France and Piedmont, Italy. Their continual disobedience towards directions from the Catholic hierarchy naturally led to the Waldensians being excommunicated from the Church in 1184.
They were viciously persecuted in the years following Waldo’s death, but survived throughout the centuries, until they found a natural home in Protestantism when it emerged in the 16th century. Waldo was ground-breaking in that he showed that one could oppose the questionable beliefs and practices of the increasingly corrupt Church from a biblical standpoint and be thrown out of communion with the Church for it, without actually being guilty of any heresy.
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John Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384)
Born: Northern England
Role: Oxford University Professor; Theologian; Bible Translator; Reformer
Emphases: Simplicity and humility of Christian life; “invisible church of the elect” (Shelley, 227); biblical authority; Bible translation
Opposed: Clerical abuses of power and luxuriousness; Papal authority; transubstantiation; idolatry
Around a century after Waldo’s death, another man in another country, but with similar concerns took the fight to the malpractice and misleadings of the Catholic Church.
John Wycliffe was a notable English intellectual at Oxford University and his sharp mind, passionate personality and love for the Scriptures uniquely placed him to take issue with many of the things that were amiss in his Church. Wycliffe promoted the Mediation of Christ, as the connection between Christians and God, over and against the Catholic system of over-mediation via priests and sacramental masses. Because of the way the pope (or at that time ‘popes’) conducted himself, Wycliffe came to see him not as the legitimate head of Christ’s body on earth, but instead as a ‘limb of Lucifer’ and even the Antichrist.
Shelley writes: “In time, Wyclif challenged the whole range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints, the treasury of their merits laid up at the reserve of the pope and the distinction between venial and mortal sins.” Eventually he significantly undermined the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation: that the bread and wine in the Eucharist ceremony become the Body and Blood of Christ in a literal sense. This stance was too radical for some of his powerful political allies – though he retained some key supporters in English society who protected him as the Church became increasingly hostile.
Wycliffe’s love and reverence for the Scriptures made him determined to them accessible to as many people as possible in their own language (rather than Latin). He drove the translation of the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate to English – a legacy reflected in the name of one of the world’s foremost Bible translation ministries to this day.
Similar to Waldo, Wycliffe also sent out preachers to reach people of all walks of life with biblical truth. His followers, often called ‘Lollards’ were not well tolerated by Catholic authorities and Wycliffe himself was posthumously excommunicated by the Church after his teachings were increasingly seen as unacceptable in the early 15th century.
Wycliffe has rightly been called the “Morningstar of the Reformation,” as he heralded many of the issues and points of protest that would arise again in just over a century after his death.
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Jan Hus (1369-1415)
Born: Husinetz, Bohemia (Czech Republic)
Role: University lecturer; Rector of Bethlehem Chapel; Reformer
Emphases: Preaching in local language; inherited Wycliffe’s emphases
Opposed: Papal selling of indulgence; idea of Pope as Head of Church;
After Wycliffe, came yet another man in yet another country, but with many of the same emphases. Jan Hus was a Bohemian scholar and preacher who enthusiastically adopted many of Wycliffe’s positions and instigated a religious reform movement within his homeland.
Again, Hus took issue with clerical abuse of power; teachings about the Eucharist; and the sale of indulgences. He was excommunicated for his teachings and later the entire city of Prague was placed under papal interdict on his account: meaning that effectively all Christians in the area were suspended from participating in the life and sacraments of the Church until further notice.
Hus left the city so the interdict would be lifted, but continued to preach his beliefs and incur the ire of the Church authorities. Eventually he was executed by religious authorities for refusing to recant his beliefs, including those he shared with Wycliffe.
Hus was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation a century after his death and had an influence upon Martin Luther, the seminal figure of that movement. Like Waldo and Wycliffe, he left behind a community of followers who continued to struggle for what he believed in for many years after his death. Through them, Hus was also an indirect influence on the Moravian and Wesleyan/Methodist movements that emerged much later.
If Luther, Calvin and the other figures of the Reformation, who we’ll look at in coming weeks, had known Billy Joel’s refrain “We didn’t start the fire” – they might have used the phrase in reference to Waldo, Wycliffe and Hus. These three men did not see the Church reformed to the degree that Luther & co. did, but it is hard to imagine the Reformation of the 16th century without these voices of dissent against the wayward path of the Church echoing down from earlier history.
As we’ll see next week, Luther had some central emphases that were distinct from his predecessors, and yet we find him repeating many of the charges and concerns against the Church hierarchy that had been expressed by those before him.
Main sources for this article are Wikipedia and Shelley’s standard text, Church History in Plain Language.